Characterized by rolling hills and rugged coastline, New Zealand’s Deep South can feel worlds away from the mountains and lakes that make up the South Island’s most popular scenery. Here, sprawling sheep farms and crashing surf offer up a unique window into New Zealand and what it means to be from “the South.”
Between the university city of Dunedin and the wind-swept town of Invercargill lies perhaps one of the South Island’s best-kept secrets: stunning, untouched landscapes. Just a short drive from the cities, you’ll find secluded beaches, ancient forests, and acres of green farmland dotted with lazy sheep. Life moves at a slow and relaxed pace in New Zealand, but it may move even more slowly here in the Deep South.
Straddling the Otago and Southland regions, you’ll also find the Catlins – a coastal area characterized by stunning coastline and dense temperate rainforest that’s filled with native species, waterfalls, and more.
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Destination Deep South: Getting There
Dunedin, the largest city in the region, can be easily reached by plane, bus, or car from just about anywhere else in New Zealand. Invercargill, too, can be reached by bus and small plane, though it’s really best to explore this part of the country at your own pace in a car or campervan.
You can hop on the Southern Scenic Route in either Invercargill or Dunedin (and it actually stretches all the way to Fiordland and Queenstown), and traverse some of the South Island’s best scenery. This route is an alternative to State Highway 1 in the south, and is absolutely worth the extra time and attention.
If you're coming from the North, odds favor you having been in Queenstown. From Queenstown, Invercargill is about a two hour drive away while Catlins & the coast is a further 1 - 2 hours.
Destination Deep South: Orientation
The South Island has far fewer cities than the North, but the Deep South region still has plenty of note-worthy stops. Cities/towns of note in the area include:
Destination Deep South: Hot Spots
The Deep South may not be huge, but there’s no lack of things to do and see here. Be sure to check out:
Dunedin is not a huge tourist town in New Zealand, but it still holds plenty for visitors to do and see. Upon first arriving in town, head downtown to the Octagon (like a city square, but with 8 sides!) to get a feel for Dunedin. Take a walk and admire some of Dunedin’s famous architecture (the railway station and First Church of Otago are worth seeing), and grab a meal at one of the many nearby open-air cafes if the weather’s nice.
Popular activities in Dunedin include touring the Cadbury World chocolate factory – complete with chocolate waterfall and free samples! – getting behind the scenes at Speight’s Brewery, and strolling along the Esplanade at St. Clair Beach. You can even take surfing lessons here, which are great for beginners.
And, of course you can’t skip walking up Baldwin Street, which, with a grade of 35 percent (or 19 degrees), is officially the steepest street in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Be sure to go all the way to the top for great views of the Dunedin suburbs, and stop at the little shop at the bottom to pick up an “I climbed Baldwin Street” certificate.
Not far from Dunedin is the beautiful and often-underrated Otago Peninsula. Along with seeing some lovely coastal scenery, you can visit a castle (Larnach Castle), try to see some rare yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place, and check out an albatross colony on the cliffs at Taiaroa Head. The latter is great because seeing these gigantic birds swooping overhead is impressive, regardless of whether you enjoy bird watching or not.
If you’re not driving yourself in this area, there are also some wildlife cruises you can take around the peninsula.
Located on the Otago Coast between Moeraki and Hampden just over an hour’s drive north of Dunedin lies Koekohe Beach. This beach is best known for the huge, round Moeraki Boulders that can be found scattered along the sand. The nearly-perfectly-round boulders make for some great photos, and are well worth seeing on the way to Dunedin if you’re driving.
These spherical boulders are thought to be 60 million years. Maori legend has it that they are giant petrified kumara that were washed from the canoe Arai-te-uru that was caught in a giant storm, long ago.
From Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, hop on the Southern Scenic Route, which snakes along the coast and absolutely lives up to its name. This twisting coastal road could take you to Invercargill in a few hours – but be sure to allow much more time in order to fully enjoy The Catlins along the way.
The best stops along the route include:
Nugget Point: With a little lighthouse, a gorgeous coastal walk, and rock formations that give this spot its name, Nugget Point is definitely a must-see site in The Catlins. Also nearby is Roaring Bay, where at certain times of year you may be able to see rare yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand fur seals, Southern elephant seals, Hooker sea lions, and plenty of seabirds.
Purakaunui Falls: Further along the Southern Scenic Route from Nugget Point, veer off the main road and stop at Purakaunui Falls. A 10-minute hike through a podocarp forest will lead you to the falls, which cascade through the trees in a stair-step formation. This waterfall is one of the most-photographed in New Zealand.
Cathedral Caves: If you can get the timing right and arrive at this spot at low tide, you’ll get the chance to hike down to Waipati Beach and the 30-meter-high Cathedral Caves, which have been carved out by the sea over the centuries.
These caves are only accessble during low tide and the hike through the forest is on private land. Consequently, the gates are only opened when the tide are right and the entry fee is $5.
It's a lovely wee hike through the forest passing streams and native ferns. Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay: These neighboring bays are not only incredibly beautiful, but also unique in their own ways. If you’re lucky at Porpoise Bay, you may spot some Hector’s Dolphins, which are some of the smallest, rarest (and cutest!) dolphins in the world and native to New Zealand. Next door at Curio Bay, you can see the remains of a petrified forest at low tide – one of only three such accessible fossil forests in the world - and the endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin.
Slope Point: As long as you’re not visiting during the spring lambing season, make the short trek across private farmland to the cliffs at Slope Point – the most southerly point of New Zealand’s South Island.
An hour or so west of Invercargill will bring you to the unbelievably quaint town of Riverton; it's one of NZ's first European settlements and its history is rooted in the days of whaling and sealing off the southern coast. This small beachside settlement sits directly on the sea and is a lovely spot to spend a night or two. We suggest it as the perfect coastal getaway if you've been spending a significant amount of time in the mountains around Queenstown.
A number of beaches in and around town are safe for swimming or just catching some rays whilst reading a book. We suggest the Riverton Rocks as both a good spot to swim and watch the sunset. Finish the day with a glass of wine while watching the sun set at the locally famous Beach House Cafe.
Ten kilometers further west of Riverton, you'll come to the popular surf and holiday spot of Colac Bay. There is a cafe, a surf beach and a spot where you can pitch a tent or park up your campervan for free - metres away from the sea.
Along with visiting the international signpost at Stirling Point (“where the highway starts”), you can also catch a nice view from the top of Bluff Hill, or try to catch a ferry across the Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island, the third-largest island in New Zealand. Before you head across the Strait, be sure to try some NZ famous Bluff Oysters.
Often called by its Maori name Rakiura, Stewart Island is home to Rakiura National Park, New Zealand’s southern-most National Park. Even though crossing the Foveaux Strait is said to be dangerous at times, visitors to the island are rewarded with pretty sunsets and plenty of natural beauty. Here you can enjoy native bush walks, overnight treks, as well as the elusive aurora australis or “Southern Lights” if you are lucky.
Destination Deep South: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
While not as jam-packed with dramatic scenery or adventure sports as the nearby Fiordland and Queenstown regions are, the Deep South is nevertheless very special in its own right. With abundant native wildlife like seals, dolphins, penguins, and albatross; rolling farmland covered in cute woolly sheep; and rugged coastline giving way to golden beaches, the Deep South is a different kind of wild.
Enjoy the laid-back vibe of cities like Dunedin and Invercargill, and then explore the area’s natural beauty on the Otago Peninsula and while cruising through The Catlins.
The Deep South is easily one of the most overlooked areas in New Zealand – but that also makes it one of the ones most worth visiting.